The Aftermath is a well-staged, post-WWII drama marred by an uninteresting post-WWII romantic arc. Keira Knightley stars alongside Alexander Skarsgaard and Jason Clarke, but it’s a cast ultimately wasted by a forgettable story, a romantic drama that would have been better without the romance.
Set in what is left of Hamburg, Germany in the months following the end of the war, The Aftermath has a British couple (played by Knightley and Clarke) moving into a house requisitioned from a German architect (Skarsgaard). Instead of forcing the architect and his teenage daughter to move into a camp, Clarke’s character allows them to stay in the attic, causing tension given that the architect lost his wife in a British firebombing and the couple lost their son in the London bombings.
The time period is a fascinating one, one that I’m not well versed in nor have seen depicted in film all that much. A simmering uprising by a German resistance, a decimated city, and Allied forces suddenly required to support a population who were sworn enemies for years are all factors for great drama, and the natural tensions caused by the two sets of characters add fuel to the fire.
Knightley is certainly up to the task and delivers a strong, complex performance that once again is a reminder of her range—and of course her love for period films (do you think she even demands a salary, or simply offers up her services free of charge?). Skarsgaard is solid as well, though he perhaps relies too heavily on the consternated stare. Clarke gives a fine performance, but his screen time is cast aside in favor of the affair between the other two leads.
The Aftermath’s depiction of a devastated Hamburg and the German citizens trapped inside, forced to acknowledge defeat while their former lives are dust around them, is fascinating. The movie presents a much more morally gray version of World War II than often depicted, a unique perspective that is both refreshing and somewhat educational. The first half leans heavily into the complexities of these post-war realities, and it is in this first half that Clarke and his character, tasked with restoring order, really shine. Even more importantly, the stage is set for a thrilling, tension-filled drama as the three lead characters are forced to face their demons.
Sadly, the movie (based on a novel by Rhidian Brook) opts to go the safe route, slapping Knightley and Skarsgaard together in a romance that never really pulses and sadly serves as an easy out to avoid tackling the film’s themes directly, a shame given that they could have been addressed in a much more visceral way. The Aftermath could have dropped the central affair storyline altogether and been better for it. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see Knightley and Clarke’s marriage splinter for the same reasons, but have Knightley and Skarsgaard come to terms in a more nuanced, emotional way that doesn’t involve sex? And wouldn’t the climax have worked more effectively had it been an emotional, charged sequence where the three actors go at it rather than the lame “action” scene the movie opts for instead?
The Aftermath offers a lot of promise, but most of that comes in the first half. Director James Kent squanders potential by taking the easy path, giving us a routine and predictable love story rather than delivering something more interesting, something that is willing to explore the trauma of war and how people from opposing sides can overcome, or at least learn to deal with, them.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.